Battle Lines: Frank Moore’s Toxic Beauty
Frank Moore: Toxic Beauty at the Grey Art Gallery
September 6 to December 8, 2012
New York University
100 Washington Square East
New York City, 212-998-6780
Ten years after the artist’s death from AIDS complications, Grey Art Gallery celebrates the work of Frank Moore with the most comprehensive presentation of his work to date. Accompanying the exhibition is an illustrated catalogue edited by Grey director Lynn Gumpert containing essays on the artist by Klaus Kertess, Susan Harris, and Gregg Bordowitz. The catalogue also compiles a collection of Moore’s own writings on his work along with reproductions of his paintings and works on paper. The book is a very well crafted glimpse into the artist’s life and art, with a particular emphasis on his interest in the body as a site of “Toxic Beauty.”
A skilled painter trained in abstraction, Moore turned to representation in the early 1980s for its narrative capacity. In her catalogue essay, abstract painter Susan Harris points to the artist’s archive, The Frank Moore Papers, now housed at NYU, to trace his professional history and search for clues about his subjects. Poignantly, she is stricken with a luminosity evidenced by Moore’s spirited journals, which she relates formally to an effulgent quality in his work. There was something hopeful about Moore’s endeavor, his countless books, articles, and journal entries evidence of his searching for answers about how our lives are reproduced through visual culture. Moore moved to Paris after graduating from Yale in 1975 to study at the Cité Internationale des Arts. By the early 1980s he had already exhibited in numerous group shows in New York, and upon his return to The States struck up a relationship with Choreographer Jim Self for whom he worked as a set designer. The dreamlike quality of Moore’s work from this time has its roots in surrealism, in particular the American surrealist Paul Cadmus, evidenced both by the artist’s formal use of color and the iconography in his work dealing with gender and sexuality.
Gregg Bordowitz, an artist and activist himself, was a close friend of Moore’s, and his essay “Battle Lines” very carefully contextualizes the artist’s work surrounding identity, HIV/AIDS, and the environment within the socio-political climate of 1980s New York. For all of its poetic subject matter and delicate narrative structure, Bordowitz sees Moore’s work as inherently tied to conflict. Be it conflicts been the AIDS activist community and the policy governing their treatment, or a metaphysical examination of conflicts between the living and the dead, there is a tension in Moore’s work which is offset by his delicate forms. His most captivating inquiry deals with Moore’s 1997 work Emigrants, a painting which is included in the catalogue but not on display in the exhibition. The piece depicts two young gay art handlers who carry an upside down painting of a flag, á la Jasper Johns, collaged in newspaper clippings, one reading “Prostitutes and AIDS.” These visual hints insist that the viewer look closely at the painting within the painting for clues about the narrative. Our view of the flag painting is obfuscated by transparent packing material that protects the fragile work while also, perhaps, acting as a symbol for safe sex. Regrettably, an interrogation of the work alongside that of Jasper Johns is markedly absent from Bordowitz’ commentary. Johns, a gay artist practicing during the Cold War, was forced to used carefully placed iconography within his paintings to allow for a queer reading of his work without having outing himself to those outside his circle. Moore, of course, was openly gay throughout his career, open even about his HIV status, and this working through of his personal life—the deepest part of himself—is evident in his work.
Dream-like as they are, there is something distinctly literary about Moore’s paintings, each a tome with layers of information to be read and discovered. In his essay in the volume, curator Klaus Kertess speaks to Moore’s interest in myth and allegory, a trend, he sees in late 20th–century American art. He points to Kara Walker’s witty, and often grotesque, reworkings of master/ slave narratives, and the dreamlike fictive universe of creation, destruction and rebirth that Mathew Barney creates for his Cremaster series. Kertess highlights Moore’s hilarious 1993 work, Venus in particular. Venus is an allegorized portrait of New York drag queen Lady Bunny portrayed as a mermaid lounging languorously on the beach, her erotic gaze designed to meet and challenge the viewers. Littered on the sand around her we find used condoms, hypodermic needles, pill bottles, and evidence of sperm swimming ashore. Bunny’s penis is featured front and center in the work, for which Moore insists he used himself as a model, painting with his pants down to get the perfect view. Moore is equally interested in issues of sexuality as he is in topics as wide ranging as genetic engineering, addiction, and the sublimity of nature. He is able to bound effortlessly both in tone and in subject matter from one work to another with either a wink or a turn of the knife, his oeuvre a testament to his wide range of interest.